Agatha gets meta

© Serhii Yevdokymov |

Among my recent companions on the commute has been Agatha Christie, and specifically her series of murder mysteries featuring the retired Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, who is almost never wrong. In the 1937 novel Cards On The Table, I found an intriguing sequence in which Christie either wrote about her writing process or poked fun at herself, and probably both.

One of the book’s characters, Mrs. Oliver, is the author of a series of books featuring a brilliant Finnish detective, who is almost never wrong. She, Poirot and Inspector Battle spend the book comparing notes and trying to decide whodunit. During a visit Rhoda Dawes, flatmate of one of the suspects, tells Mrs. Oliver how marvelous it must be to be a writer. 

“Why?” Mrs. Oliver responds, flustering Miss Dawes, who blurts well, it must be wonderful to be able to sit down and write out a whole book.

“It doesn’t exactly happen like that,” said Mrs. Oliver. “One actually has to think, you know, and thinking is always a bore. And you have to plan things. And then one gets stuck every now and then, and you feel you’ll never get out of the mess, but you do. Writing’s not particularly enjoyable. It’s hard work like everything else.”

It doesn’t seem like work, says fangirl Rhoda.

“Not to you, because you don’t have to do it. It feels very much like work to me. Some days I can only keep going by repeating to myself the amount of money I might get for my next serial rights. That spurs you on, you know. So does your bank book when you see how much overdrawn you are.”

Undeterred, Miss Dawes can only insist that it must be fun to sit down and just think things up. But the response is:

“I can always think of things. What is so tiring is writing them down. I always think I’ve finished and when I count up, I find I’ve only written 30,000 words instead of 60,000 — and so then I have to throw in another murder and get the heroine kidnapped again — it’s all very boring.”

I chuckled at the exchange as I flew along the highway listening to Hugh Fraser read, enjoying what appears to be Ms. Christie’s commentary on the creative process. The scene begins with Miss Oliver lamenting that she just realized she wrote green beans into a scene and only then recalled they would be out of season during the time of year when the scene is set. She just knows some reader will catch the error and call it to her attention, so she’s stuck until she fixes the scene.

As much fun as writing is, as Miss Oliver says, it can feel very much like work. It’s comforting to know that even after 20 novels, Agatha Christie still had moments where it stalled. I wonder if she wrote the conversation between the misses Oliver and Dawes at one of those moments, when she was stuck and needed to write anything to keep her momentum until something came out that was worth keeping in the novel.

That might be boring, but the result was pure gold.

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